Buddhist scriptures and other texts exist in great variety. Different schools of Buddhism place varying levels of value on learning the various texts. Some schools venerate certain texts as religious objects in themselves, while others take a more scholastic approach. The Buddhist canons of scripture are known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka and in Pāli as the Tipitaka. These terms literally mean "three baskets" and refer to the three main divisions of the canon, which are:
- The Vinaya Pitaka, containing disciplinary rules for the Sanghas of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as a range of other texts including explanations of why and how rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification.
- The Sūtra Pitaka, contains discourses ascribed to the Buddha.
- The Abhidharma Pitaka, contains material often described as systematic expositions of the Buddha's teachings.
According to the scriptures, soon after the death of the Buddha, the first Buddhist council was held; a monk named Mahākāśyapa presided. The goal of the council was to record the Buddha's sayings— sūtras (Sanskrit) or suttas; And codify monastic rules (Vinaya). Ānanda, the Buddha's personal attendant, was called upon to recite the discourses of the Buddha, and according to some sources the abhidhamma, and Upāli, another disciple, recited the rules of the Vinaya. These became the basis of the Tripitaka. However, this record was initially transmitted orally in form of chanting, and was committed to text in a much later period. Both the sūtras and the Vinaya of every Buddhist school contain a wide variety of elements including discourses on the Dharma, commentaries on other teachings, cosmological and cosmogonical texts, stories of the Buddha's previous lives, and lists relating to various subjects.
The Theravāda and other early Buddhist Schools traditionally believe that the texts of their canon contain the actual words of the Buddha. The Theravāda canon, also known as the Pāli Canon after the language it was written in, contains some four million words. Other texts, such as the Mahāyāna sūtras, are also considered by some to be the word of the Buddha, but supposedly were transmitted in secret, or via lineages of mythical beings (such as the |nāgas), or came directly from other Buddhas or bodhisattvas. Approximately six hundred Mahāyāna sutras have survived in Sanskrit or in Chinese or Tibetan translations. In addition, East Asian Buddhism recognizes some sutras regarded by scholars as of Chinese origin. The followers of Theravāda Buddhism take the scriptures known as the Pāli Canon as definitive and authoritative, while the followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism base their faith and philosophy primarily on the Mahāyāna sūtras and their own versions of the Vinaya. The Pāli sutras, along with other, closely-related scriptures, are known to the other schools as the āgamas.
Whereas the Theravādins adhere solely to the Pali canon and its commentaries, the adherents of Mahāyāna accept both the agamas and the Mahāyāna sūtras as authentic, valid teachings of the Buddha, designed for different types of persons and different levels of spiritual penetration. For the Theravādins, however, the Mahayana sūtras are works of poetic fiction, not the words of the Buddha himself. The Theravadins are confident that the Pali canon represents the full and final statement by the Buddha of his Dhamma—and nothing more is truly needed beyond that. Anything added which claims to be the word of the Buddha and yet is not found in the Canon or its commentaries is treated with extreme caution if not outright rejection by Theravada.
For the Mahāyānists, in contrast, the āgamas do indeed contain basic, foundational, and, therefore, relatively weighty pronouncements of the Buddha. From the Mahayana standpoint the Mahāyāna sutras articulate the Buddha's higher, more advanced and deeper doctrines, reserved for those who follow the bodhisattva path. That path is explained as being built upon the motivation to liberate all living beings from unhappiness. Hence the name Mahāyāna (lit., the Great Vehicle), which expresses availability both to the general masses of sentient beings and those who are more developed. The theme of greatness can be seen in many elements of Mahayana Buddhism, from the length of some of the Mahayana sutras and the vastness of the Bodhisattva vow, which strives for all future time to help free all other persons and creatures from pain), to the (in some sutras and Tantras) final attainment of the Buddha's "Great Self" (mahatman) in the sphere of "Great Nirvana" (mahanirvana). For Theravadins and many scholars, including A.K. Warder however, the self-proclaimed "greatness" of the Mahayana Sutras does not make them a true account of the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha.
Unlike many religions, Buddhism has no single central text that is universally referred to by all traditions. However, some scholars have referred to the Vinaya Pitaka and the first four Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka as the common core of all Buddhist traditions. However, this could be considered misleading, as Mahāyāna considers these merely a preliminary, and not a core, teaching, the Tibetan Buddhists have not even translated most of the āgamas, though theoretically they recognize them, and they play no part in the religious life of either clergy or laity in China and Japan. The size and complexity of the Buddhist canons have been seen by some (including Buddhist social reformer Babasaheb Ambedkar as presenting barriers to the wider understanding of Buddhist philosophy.
Over the years, various attempts have been made to synthesize a single Buddhist text that can encompass all of the major principles of Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, condensed 'study texts' were created that combined popular or influential scriptures into single volumes that could be studied by novice monks. Later in Sri Lanka, the Dhammapada was championed as a unifying scripture. Dwight Goddard collected a sample of Buddhist scriptures, with the emphasis on Zen, along with other classics of Eastern philosophy, such as the Tao Te Ching, into his Buddhist Bible in the 1920s. More recently, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar attempted to create a single, combined document of Buddhist principles in "The Buddha and His Dhamma". Other such efforts have persisted to present day, but currently there is no single text that represents all Buddhist traditions.
The Four Noble TruthsEdit
- "the noble truth that is suffering"
- "the noble truth that is the arising of suffering"
- "the noble truth that is the end of suffering"
- "the noble truth that is the way leading to the end of suffering"
According to the scriptures, the Four Noble Truths were among the topics of the first sermon given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, which was given to the five ascetics with whom he had practiced austerities. The Four Noble Truths were originally spoken by the Buddha not in the form of a religious or philosophical text, but in the manner of a medical diagnosis and remedial prescription in a style that was common at that time. The early teaching and the traditional understanding in the Theravada is that these are an advanced teaching for those who are ready for them. The Mahayana position is that they are a preliminary teaching for people not yet ready for the higher and more expansive Mahayana teachings. They are little known in the Far East.
The Noble Eightfold PathEdit
The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to the cessation of suffering, the fourth part of the Four Noble Truths. In the early sources (the four main Nikayas) it is not generally taught to laymen, and it is little known in the Far East. This is divided into three sections: Śīla (which concerns wholesome physical actions), Samadhi (which concerns the meditative concentration of the mind) and Prajñā (which concerns spiritual insight into the true nature of all things).
Śīla is morality—abstaining from unwholesome deeds of body and speech. Within the division of sila are three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path:
- Right Speech—One speaks in a non hurtful, not exaggerated, truthful way (samyag-vāc, sammā-vācā)
- Right Actions—Wholesome action, avoiding action that would do harm (samyak-karmānta, sammā-kammanta)
- Right Livelihood—One's way of livelihood does not harm in any way oneself or others; directly or indirectly (samyag-ājīva, sammā-ājīva)
Samadhi is developing mastery over one’s own mind. Within this division are another three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path:
- Right Effort/Exercise—One makes an effort to improve (samyag-vyāyāma, sammā-vāyāma)
- Right Mindfulness/Awareness—Mental ability to see things for what they are with clear consciousness (samyak-smṛti, sammā-sati)
- Right Concentration/Meditation—Being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion. (samyak-samādhi, sammā-samādhi)
Prajñā is the wisdom which purifies the mind. Within this division fall two more parts of the Noble Eightfold Path:
- Right Understanding—Understanding reality as it is, not just as it appears to be. (samyag-dṛṣṭi, sammā-diṭṭhi)
- Right Thoughts—Change in the pattern of thinking. (samyak-saṃkalpa, sammā-saṅkappa)
The word samyak means "perfect". There are a number of ways to interpret the Eightfold Path. On one hand, the Eightfold Path is spoken of as being a progressive series of stages through which the practitioner moves, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another, whereas others see the states of the 'Path' as requiring simultaneous development. It is also common to categorize the Eightfold Path into prajñā (Pāli paññā, wisdom), śīla (Pāli sīla, virtuous behavior) and samādhi (concentration).